“It’s not us versus you,” TTC workers’ union head Bob Kinnear told the modest crowd gathered at Downsview Secondary School in North York, midway through the first of three “Let’s Talk” town halls between TTC employees and riders, which led us to joke then that Kinnear had been body-snatched. After all, in the public’s eyes until that day, Kinnear had been about the worst representative a union could ask for—often brash, always defensive, and consistently staking out whatever position would pit him against the public most.
This time, Kinnear was right. At the town halls—one in North York, one in Scarborough, and another downtown, all of which Torontoist attended—it wasn’t “us” (the workers) versus “you” (the riders): it was all of them versus everyone else.
That first town hall, held on April 11, had a format that the subsequent two would match. Like the monthly Metropasses every attendee has a chance to win, the opportunity to stand and ask a question or make a comment is raffled off. Every interested attendee fills out and submits a card with their name on it, and the moderator draws a name, a mic makes its way to the person whose name was called, and then the panel gets a chance to respond to whatever’s said.
Everyone in the audience gets a little voting device, too, and intermittently over the course of the two-hour-long town halls, the moderator poses questions, and the audience uses the devices to answer, with a graph of the results displayed on a large screen over the panellists’ heads. (Should the TTC ban eating food? At both the first and second town halls, 57% say yes.) That panel always consisted of six people: four workers (some combination of bus, streetcar, subway, and Wheel-Trans operators), the moderator (John Tory at the first town hall, Diane O’Reggio at the second, and Barbara Budd at the third), and Bob Kinnear.
Inside the high-school auditorium as the first meeting starts, everyone’s in a great mood. It can’t hurt that, for the first two town halls, free chartered TTC buses run directly from stations to the meeting before it starts (homemade signs and all), and then back from the meeting to the stations after it’s over. John Tory’s helping, too: when someone asks a question about “regularity,” he makes a poop joke. Bob Kinnear’s more likeable and sympathetic and strong than you’ve ever seen him, when he’s not saying “utilize” incorrectly over and over again: he opens with a story about how, as an operator, he angrily told a rider “can’t you read?” only to find out they were illiterate. (That, he says, was the customer service experience that changed him.)
TTC higher-ups and mayoral candidates are there, too: Chair Adam Giambrone is shaking some hands at the door, and points out his “Save Transit City” button to us; we see Joe Pantalone, Sarah Thomson, and Giorgio Mammoliti inside. TTC General Manager Gary Webster takes notes.
More than anything else, we can’t help but think of the first town hall as a lot like a lovers’ quarrel. On both sides, there’s lots of apologizing, sympathy, laughter, acceptance of blame, and appreciation. “What can we do to make you happy?” the guy beside us asks the panel, to applause. One woman in the audience cries as she explains how she sometimes misses her bus by mere seconds. She is relentlessly apologized to. Of the audience, 64%, we note from an earlier vote, is 41–65 years old.
Of the interaction between workers and riders, Kinnear says there’s a lack of respect—the fault of both the union and the public. Panellist Anthony Wallace, who is also a former Olympian, admits staff sometimes “slack off.” But Kinnear also reductively blames politicians and management for individual TTC staffers’ on-the-job frustration.
Indeed, most questions or complaints from the audience are ones that don’t fit, directed as they are at a panel of front-line employees: there’re concerns that the panel can do nothing about, such as insufficient service, accessibility, multi-level buses, empty buses, and technology. (In a vote, 95% of the audience think the TTC’s technology is outdated.) The biggest claps of the afternoon go to a woman who has a long list of complaints about riders—loud music, grooming in public. “Come on, guys,” she says, to no one.
Yet when the crowd is asked if they’re willing to pay increased taxes or fees—like road tolls—as way to build better transit, 44% agree, and 42% disagree. The “f-word,” Kinnear’ll say, is “funding,” but the audience nodding in agreement would rather the funding came from somewhere else.
When we get on the chartered bus to get back to Wilson Station, we find out from the driver that they’re not authorized to move—the town-hall meeting went long. “Blame John Tory,” the driver says, shortly before we quickly get authorization again. Him, too?
The second meeting is deep “in the heart of Scarborough,” as a bus driver puts it to us after we take another chartered bus ride up Warden, past bungalows and new housing developments and painted-over graffiti on concrete bridges.
A new panel sits on stage inside Stephen Leacock Collegiate’s auditorium, and a new set of mayoral candidates sit in the audience, at a safe distance from one another, Rob Ford and Rocco Rossi. (Giambrone and Webster are there again, too.) Seeing Rob Ford sit in an auditorium designed to accommodate teenagers only underlines just how big the man is; even when he’s smiling, his presence suggests he’s not to be fucked with. (He wears a “Rob Ford for Mayor” button, and infrequently scribbles notes on some stapled-together paper.)
The crowd is old, again—the first speaker is the chair of the Scarborough Association of Seniors—but the skin colours are a bit more varied this time. The questions and complaints are not so diverse, though: brought up are technology, funding, scheduling, vehicle seating, a “culture of entitlement” that starts at management, signalling issues, TTC special constables, and suicide barriers (which the crowd laughs at).
A panellist says, in earnest, that “as an operator we have absolutely no control what happens with funding….we just want to get you guys to work, or get you home.” Yet there the panel and Kinnear is, answering far more questions about things they have no control over than things they do.
On stage, operator Jeff Gill notes that “there is an actual change in perception on both sides”—by which he means the public, and TTC employees. The crowd nods. The event he’s speaking at no doubt helps, another small audience aside. When someone says that “we should start being a little more friendly to one another,” Kinnear agrees, adding that “good will spreads. It begins with us.”
But good will doesn’t spread to everyone. Just past the midway point, Mai Cheng, an elderly Asian woman stands up, two rows behind Adam Giambrone, and insists that “he“—Giambrone—”should be fired right away,” to a few bursts of audience applause. Giambrone doesn’t say anything; he can’t, has no opportunity to. (The moment looked like this.) Kinnear’s response is to charm Cheng. “If you came on my bus,” he tells her, “we might have a [fare] dispute, because you don’t look like a senior.” Giambrone leaves his seat, but not the building, soon after.
These town halls, we finally realize, aren’t assuaging public anger so much as they are pushing the anger in other directions—up, to TTC management, or out, to other riders. The rage of the masses is easier to reorient than it is to temper.
Still, the crowd self-moderates well. When people shout out of turn, the crowd shhhss them. When one older man stands up from his seat in front, he can only get out the start of what sounds like a question—”IS THIS MEETING…”—before shouts of “sit down!” and “shut up!” drown him out. (He gets a chance to ask his question anyway, later, when his name is called; he rises with a “well, hello there,” and the little girl behind us yells “fixed!”)
Kinnear promises customer service “initiatives” in the months to come. Afterwards, we bump back into a female TTC employee who we talked to earlier about the previous town hall. “That was more interesting than the last one, wasn’t it?” we ask. She says “yes.”
No one laughs at the final town hall at Ryerson, when moderator Barbara Budd opens by announcing that the reason the subway was shut down that morning was a suicide. The space we’re all now in is smaller, so everyone sits closer together. The crowd’s younger now: those aged 41 to 65 account for a more modest 35% of the crowd. Gary Webster’s there, but Adam Giambrone isn’t, and there’s nary a mayoral candidate in sight other than J.P. Pampena, who is blind, whose campaign slogan is “Man with the Vision,” and who asks questions at all three town halls.
The next two hours go as the others have. There are questions about high fares, insufficient washrooms, accessibility, loud vehicles, frequency and scope of service, scheduling, fare collection, transferable Metropasses, and the audio quality of voice announcements over the PA system. “As operators,” one panellist says, “we don’t have the ability to take that bus and do as we please.” But that doesn’t stop the audience from asking questions along exactly those lines. For all the credit the “Let’s Talk” town halls deserve for their organization, each edition still lacks a clear set of instructions to the audience as to what questions should and shouldn’t be asked—and what questions can and can’t be answered by the panellists.
Of the three meetings, though, the final one does focus a little more on customer service. “Have you ever felt angry or uncomfortably by something that occurred on the TTC?” Budd asks the crowd. In response, 88% say yes. Of those, the audience votes to say that passengers were responsible 27% of the time for the incidents, TTC staff 34% of the time, and both sides equally 39%. Budd says that “just like life, we’re doing it to each other.”
When a woman asks about “racial comment[s]” directed at her by a driver, it’s one of the few this-is-actually-the-sort-of-thing-these-town-halls-should-address moments. “I don’t often give credit to the TTC,” Kinnear says in response, before tipping his hat to their diverse hiring practices. He tells the woman—who’s frustrated that the person hasn’t yet lost their job over the comments even though it’s been “years”—that “we are obligated to represent our members to the best of our abilities,” even when the union may not want to. Kinnear tells the woman he’ll talk to her after the town hall. As it has been throughout, his tone is prepared, careful, optimistic: “where there’s a will there’s a way,” he says of improving the TTC, “and we’ve got lots of will.”
As at the previous town halls, the afternoon’s fixed structure is to the benefit of everyone. If someone shouts something, Budd need merely say that “I’m sorry, we have to go by this protocol.” One man starts yelling, and everyone shushes him; Budd says “be quiet, sir,” and the audience claps. (He’ll get a chance to ask his question later, and it’s about fares; Kinnear replies to say, as he had at both of the previous town halls, that “we’ve got one of the least-subsidized transit systems in North America.”) Later, a woman will stand up, turn to face the audience, and ask, about a violation of TTC rules she thinks she’s captured, “do you want to see my pictures?” Everyone yells “no!”
When the two hours are almost up, everyone’s getting antsy, including the two men to our immediate right. One, a Middle Eastern–looking man with long, messy, curly hair and a Batman “Why So Serious?” t-shirt, is recording the action on-stage and sometimes in the audience on a video camera. The man to his left, and just beside us, is holding his question for the panel, written-out in capital letters, getting more and more uncomfortable as the other man films, muttering to himself. Then, the two men start muttering at one another: the guy with the small piece of lined paper doesn’t want to be filmed—doesn’t want the Middle Eastern–looking guy filming, period—and says as much to him.
The guy with the camera ignores him, and then the guy with the note gets angrier, more insistent. The Middle Eastern guy turns the camera directly on him for a second. “Hey guys,” we say to both at once, as forcefully as we can without drawing attention to ourselves. “Let’s not do this. Guys.” Both men cock their arms back, as though each is about to punch the other. We decide to focus on the guy right beside us, the one waiting to ask his question. We say there’s no reason to get into a fight, and tell him that he should come and sit on the other side of us, so that we’ll be between the two men, with an empty seat on our right side for good measure. He tells us that he’s convinced the Middle Eastern man is a “terrorist. I know it. I can tell.” We tell him, as nicely as we can, that that can’t be true, but that we don’t mind sitting between the two of them, so let’s just do that. He stands up in his seat and moves to our left. The Middle Eastern–looking man keeps filming to our right.
A few people around us are starting to notice what’s going on. A female TTC operator—one of the on-stage panellists at the Scarborough meeting—comes to sit down with us, so that there are now two people between the two men. The guy with the scrawled sheet of paper is still obviously uncomfortable, hiding his face from the camera that’s by then pointed nowhere near him, and on top of that worried that he’s not going to get to ask his question. We introduce ourselves to him, shake his hand, get his name, tell him we’ve been to the two other events, and that after it’s over we’re sure he can still find someone who can help answer his question. He’s still convinced the man who’s now three seats over is a terrorist. “Well, I don’t think that’s true,” we keep saying over and over again.
We’re too concentrated on defusing the near-fight to pay attention, but we think we hear Barbara Budd say, to wrap the final town hall up, that “anger is not excusable, but it can be understandable.”
And then, to much applause, Bob Kinnear gives away five free monthly Metropasses.
Photos, all from the final town hall at Ryerson, by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
This article originally said that Downsview Secondary School was located in Etobicoke, the result of a note-taking error; rather, the school is located near Keele and Wilson, in North York.